What do Chicago and SpongeBob have in common?

One of my biggest strengths and weaknesses is that I err on the side of caution. With big ideas, I like to ruminate for awhile, explore their many facets, and rework plans a few times before diving in fully. In this case, the idea to start a newsletter has been simmering on my idea stove for a few months, waiting for something that would turn the heat up to a boil.

And now that something has arrived – in the form of a conversation with my colleagues on the road to a client meeting. We started discussing what we were reading at the moment. 

“I’m reading this fantastic biography of George Washington,” one said. “It’s nonfiction, but the writing and storytelling is so good that it reads like fiction.” 

I knew exactly what he meant, and said so enthusiastically, sharing my comments on the similarly story-focused nonfiction book I was reading: a deep-dive into the handful of murderesses in the 1920s who later inspired the musical Chicago. These women shocked the city, broke the stereotype that women were too delicate to be violent, and advanced the growing fear about the city’s rapid demise into crime and corruption. 

Cover of The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

But what I find most intriguing about the story isn’t the juxtaposition between the murderesses’ glamorous drop-waist dresses and the distinctly grisly acts they committed in them, but rather how author Douglas Perry establishes an equally important character in the story: a journalist named Maurine Watkins who covered the murderess beat for the Chicago Tribune, often editorializing her reports to share her own opinion on the murder du jour.

“I love that the book is about more than the actual murders,” I told my team. “It’s more about the role of who you are and what you look like in whether you get convicted – and how different outlets’ coverage can guide public opinion. Of course both of those things are still true now, 100 years later.”

While reporters no longer rush out of courtrooms to make the print run of the newspaper’s evening edition, it’s an evergreen fact that each news source has its own slant, and those differences hold a lot of power in the formation of public opinion. It’s a timeless question: where should the line remain between providing information and guiding people to understanding that information in a certain way? 

In the book, murderess Beulah Annan is often described in the media “as if she were a work of art: her hair was not simply red but ‘Titian,’ her coy smile that of a ’Sphinx’ withholding a thrilling riddle. The male reporters covering her case had long ago come over to her side…It seemed to Maurine Watkins that she was the only one who remembered the ugliness of the killing.” Maurine often writes her news articles with a critical, satirical tone that she calls her “preacher’s mind,” putting a stake in the ground where she feels she can encourage “the right verdict.” 

As I muddled over this dotted line between exposition and persuasion, we arrived at our clients’ office to have an eerily similar conversation about where on that same line they want to fall. As a philanthropic foundation, they navigate this conversation daily. We’ve been encouraging them to move away from purely academic and data-driven messaging and add some poetic language for emotional appeal. That shift is understandably scary for an organization with a long history of communicating diplomatically and formally. 

As I’ve been helping to copywrite their message, I’ve had to wrestle over every cautious nuance, framing recommendation, and talking point. The process has heightened my awareness of how every word is fraught with connotations – “dependence” isn’t just about addiction, but also hints at an underlying abusive relationship between a person and their drug. “Opportunity” has an inextricable twinge of Americana to it. “Subliminal” feels much more insidious than “subtle.” Two weeks ago I spent 6 hours straight in a room with our client wrangling all these connotations into a two-sentence intro message for our header area (to our credit, it also resulted in creating structure for the other sections we were supposed to write, and intros are notoriously challenging…but still). 

We were basically the embodiment of one of my favorite TV moments – a scene in which, after agonizing for hours over his essay, SpongeBob has a breakthrough that results in “The.” 

"The" in fancy script text on an otherwise blank page, from SpongeBob Squarepants.

So why did this one book, a conversation about it, and a potentially forced connection to a work project inspire me to start a newsletter? Because all those things are about finding truth, honing your craft, and discovering balance in our role as communicators. 

That last element is something I’ve been pondering daily, between reading about Chicago newspapers toeing the activist line during the 1920s and spending 10 minutes with the client discussing whether “deceptive” is too provocative of a word for their brand.

Whether your title implies a role as a communicator (media, advocacy, marketing, etc.) or whether you just have to interact with people periodically (looking at you, literally everyone), we all have had the obligation to carefully dance between being emotive enough to make someone care without undermining our credibility as a source of objective truth. We have to ensure that main points are covered, but also ensure understanding of their implications. And sometimes we need to sidestep into encouraging deliberate action, but we may need to avoid alienating those who wouldn’t take the same approach to change. 

That delicate balance is something that takes time to refine, and I’m probably not quite there yet. In fact, I’m starting to recognize how it takes time to develop those types of skills, and how finding finesse is what our 20s are all about. Hence the name my newly launched newsletter. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m working on it, and I’ll take anyone along for the ride who wants to sit in my passenger seat. 

Finding Finesse is all about navigating young adulthood: exploring the world, learning about yourself, and growing in your professional career. It’s about feeling imposter syndrome and working through it. It’s about making mistakes and taking that failure in stride. It’s about forming new relationships with intention, realizing what’s important to you, and discovering purpose you never knew you had. 

Sign up now at findingfinesse.substack.com to get the next issue.


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